Five Wits

In the first scene of Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice talks about Benedick and his “wit”:

In our last conflict four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man governed with one: so that if he have wit enough to keep himself warm, let him bear it for a difference between himself and his horse; for it is all the wealth that he hath left, to be known a reasonable creature.
  • I.i.60-6

So what are the “five wits”?

There is no concrete consensus, though Shakespeare himself noted a distinction between the five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) and the five wits, as noted in Sonnet 141 (“my five wits nor my five senses” [line 9]). According to some, the “inward” wits include:

  • “common wit”
    a kind of sensus communis or common sense (more closely aligned to sensory awareness), the basis for all others wits
  • “imagination”
    the ability to perceive and connect the sensory to the cognitive
  • “fantasy”
    the more creative outlet of the imagination
  • “estimation”
    something akin to the modern notion of instinct
  • “memory”
    the ability to keep and maintain the results of the imagination

According to others, “reason”, and “intelligence” can be included as well.

And according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “wit” had, at the time, a meaning that helps somewhat:

a. Any one of certain particular faculties of perception, classified as outer (outward) or bodily, and inner (inward) or ghostly, and commonly reckoned as five of each kind (see 3b)…
b. five wits: usually, the five (bodily) senses; often vaguely, the perceptions or mental faculties generally, = wits (in sense 3c or 4b)…
c. pl. Mental faculties, intellectual powers…
d. sing. and pl. Consciousness; sensation: cf. sense n. 3, 6 Obs. rare.
  • “wit, n.; 3”
    OED Online.
    Oxford University Press,
    June 2014.
    Web. 19 September 2014.

So 3a shows promise, but references 3b. Of course, 3b circles back around to a melding of the five wits and the five senses (which we know was a not typical Shakespearean view).

So where does that leave us?

Not sure, but let’s say for argument’s sake, the five wits are the above noted “common wit,” “imagination,” “fantasy,” “estimation,” and “memory.” According to Beatrice, Benedick’s five senses limped or walked away lamely (“halt, v.; 1” OED) from their last conflict. And if the wits are in any way hierarchical, then he was left with the most basic wit, the “common wit.” And what should he do with this sensory awareness? She makes a heraldic suggestion, he should display the wit on his coat of arms, as what distinguishes him from his horse. In other words, he’s only just better than a horse, he’s “a reasonable creature,” but nothing heroic.

Of course, even in this insult, there’s a “double meaning” as the horse in heraldry represented a readiness to serve king and country, as well as speed and masculinity.

Oh, and it also represented intelligence.

A double meaning, indeed.

2 Replies to “Five Wits”

  1. I fell in love with Beatrice during the show. I was Benedick and although our off-stage romance was short I continue to treasure it 33 yrs. later. on Facebook.

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